Azzedine Alaïa as a collector, at Palais Galliera

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Charles James, evening dress, Haute Couture, cir 1950

You all have heard of Azzedine Alaïa, the genius couturier who sadly left us too soon in 2017. But what I did not know before I visited the new show at Palais Galleria, “Azzedine Alaïa, couturier collector”,  is that he collected 20 000 costumes from all periods and spent his time and money restoring them and preserving this unique French art. Olivier Saillard, who used to run the Museum of Fashion at Galliera from 2010 to 2018,  curated the show of 140 pieces selected from the collection, with Miren Arzalluz, its director. And it is a treasure throve of styles from the end of the XIX th century to today. From Balenciaga to Charles James, Piguet and less well known Augustabernard or Mainbocher, the collection teaches us how studious and secretive Alaïa was, and how curious he was of cuts and styles. It is a very moving show, which ends at MAM Paris across the street, where three of the stage costumes for the Ballets Russes designed by Matisse are exhibited in the rooms dedicated to his Dance.

Claire McCardell, day dress printed in “Wild Parade”  a drawing by Fernand Léger, ready to wear 1955

The Palais Galliera is an elegant building in the XVI th arrondissement and walking into the dark exhibition rooms is always a mystical experience. This time the show starts with three black dresses by Cristobal Balenciaga (1895-1972), the Spanish master of Hubert de Givenchy and many more post war designers, whose precious fabrics and dresses Alaïa inherited when his house closed in 1968. They are in crêpe de soie or crêpe de laine, very simple and the cut is what counts. This is when for the first time, the couturier realized that fashion had to be preserved.  Immediately follows a group of dresses by Charles James, whom Alaïa discovered in a retrospective at the Brooklyn museum in 1980. James lived between Chicago, London and New York and was credited by Christian Dior as having inspired him the New look. He died at the Chelsea hotel, in New York, in 1978.

Madame Carven, day dress, “Jamaica”, Couture, spring summer 1953

Claire McCardell is another American designer  who inspired him with her suppression of lining, the simplified fastening systems and her extreme simple wrap dresses printed in fabrics designed by Miró and Léger. She was well known in Manhattan for her Monastic dress designed in 1938. Adrian is another American couturier whom Alaïa collected. He used to run the MGM costumes department and invented the Hollywood glamour for Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford. There are more than 350 of his creations in the collection which are otherwise totally absent from French fashion museums.

Adrian, evening dress, Couture, cir 1940, with three monkeys, one holding a green leaf

Madame Grés (he bought 900 dresses by her), Elsa Schiaparelli, Madeleine Vionnet, Paul Poiret and of course Gabriel Chanel, are all prominent in the collection. Worth, Doucet and Redfern (1820-1895), who started in Cowes and whom I had never heard of, all bring something new to fashion of the turn-of-the-century. Mariano Fortuny, Callot soeurs where Madeleine Vionnet started, and of course Jeanne Lanvin of whom Alaïa owns many hundred models. Jean Patou has a beautiful evening dress.

Madeleine Vionnet, evening dress, Couture, fall winter 1938-1939

Pierre Balmain, Pierre Cardin, André Courrèges, Hubert de Givenchy and Yves Saint Laurent are all present towards the end of the show and the last room is devoted to contemporary designers such as Thierry Mugler, Jean Paul Gaultier, John Galliano and Nicolas Ghesquière. The Japanese designers had a special place in his heart and he always sat on front row at their shows. They are represented here by Comme des Garçons, Junya Watanabe and Yohji Yamamoto. John Galliano for Christian Dior and Alexander McQueen end the show on a glittering silver note.

Redfern, Corsage and skirt, Couture, cir 1890-1900

The exhibition goes on at MAM Paris across the street where you can see three dresses designed by Matisse for the Ballets Russes in the Matisse rooms. Access is free. And you can also visit the Alaïa Foundation, 18 rue de la Verrerie, where an exhibition is taking place on “Alaïa and Grés” until February 2024. It is curated by Olivier Saillard its director. Carla Sozzani is president and works with Jean Louis Forment, Fabrice Hergott, Serge Lasvignes and Pierre Provoyeur, all museum curators.

Stage costume for Le Chant du Rossignol, a ballet adapted from Igor Stravinsky’s opera and commissioned by Serge de Diaghilev for les Ballets Russes, February 2, 1920, at the Paris Opera, presented in the Matisse rooms of MAM Paris

Until 21 January 2024. Palais Galliera

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